Editor’s Choice – October 2014

I’ve long considered William Walton’s First Symphony as equal to Elgar’s two masterworks, although seriously underrated as one of the pillars of 20th-century symphonic repertoire. It also marked one of the great “breakthroughs’  in 20th-century music, when Walton served notice he had broken free of the louche, epicene aristocrats of his early creative life – from Bright Young Thing to Angry Young Man. I recently heard Walton’s music described as “tame”. I suggest the writer consult an audiologist. 

The First Symphony’s greatest recording is almost universally judged to be André Previn’s 1966 LSO, all the more amazing since Previn’s exposure to British music had been minimal. The composer’s own recording of the work with the old Philharmonia in its palmiest days was also excellent (giving the lie to the notion that most composers, except Bernstein, made lousy interpreters of their own scores). Previn’s reading captured the rubber-on-tarmac, pedal-to-the-metal velocity, brilliantly maintained tautness and rugged glamour, not to mention one of the best “travelling tunes” ever composed.

“Tasmin Little brings out the mercurial shifts in Walton’s marvellous score”

Edward Gardner doesn’t surpass Previn in any of these but gives a performance that is, nonetheless, impressive and highly enjoyable. The timpani strokes in the first movement are also impressive in their precision. The scherzo, marked (uniquely?) con malizia – “with malice”-also displays more wit than malevolence. The slow movement reveals the work’s soft core, with lovely languid phrasing and a deep sense of yearning, while the finale, composed after a gap of some years and often regarded as the weak link, here sounds convincing without any fault line in quality. It also foreshadows Walton’s coronation music. 

Tasmin Little’s rendition of the Violin Concerto (another work which never quite seems to have entered the scared canon) is masterful. This work marks the zenith of Walton’s most romantic period and Little brings out the mercurial shifts in this marvellous score: the kaleidoscopic succession of moods in the first movement; from the sognando “dreaming” opening and rapture, to the central section’s jazz-inspired inflections. 

In the second movement, Little also perfectly catches the sensual Mediterranean ambience, which imbued so many of the composer’s later works, as well as immaculate double stopping in the unexpectedly jaunty waltz episode. The third movement is even more lyrical and Little leaves some of her powder dry for the exquisite cadenza, placed unusually here (as in Elgar’s totally different work). This performance is even better than that of the Symphony.

Available on the iTunes Store: Walton: Symphony No. 1 – Violin Concerto – Tasmin Little, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Edward Gardner